The Christmas Market tradition goes all the way back to the Late Middle Ages in the German-speaking areas of Europe. It’s normally held during the four weeks of Advent leading up to December 25th.
I’m an unapologetic Scrooge when it comes to all things Christmas — especially the overhyped North American consumer craze version. And you won’t catch me making a yearly appearance at a church just for the midnight mass atmosphere, either. I’d much rather put the Saturn back in Saturnalia with a good old fashioned Roman orgy.
But I still enjoy the Christmas markets in Berlin. There’s a chill in the air, a scent of woodsmoke hovering around the edges, and enough food and drink to stuff even the hungriest turkey.
Markets are normally set up in a town square, and they sometimes spill over into neighbouring streets. Stalls sell ornaments, furry hats, food and drink. And most markets have singing and dancing entertainers, too.
The highlight of any Christmas market is, of course, glühwein — hot wine spiced with cinnamon, aniseed, cloves, citrus, sugar, and sometimes with a shot of brandy thrown in for extra warmth.
You can also eat a delicious bratwurst covered in mustard, roasted chestnuts, bite-sized donuts, pretzels filled with cream cheese and chives, and Flammkuchen (bread baked in a stone oven and topped with creamy white cheese, green onion and chunks of meat).
Got a serious sweet tooth? There’s plenty for you, too. You’ll find liquorice, candied nuts, crepes, candied apples and candied grapes, nougat, and that traditional standard, marzipan.
So where should you go if you find yourself in Berlin for the holidays?
Don’t miss the festivities at Gendarmenmarkt. Sure, it’s pretty touristy, I guess because it’s in the city centre. But the architecture around the square — the old Konzerthaus, the Französischer Dom, the Deutsher Dom, and the statue of poet Friedrich Schiller — gives it such a wonderful atmosphere at night.
We also visited Richardplatz in Neukölln this year, site of the old Bohemian village of Alt-Rixdorfer, founded in 1737. That market is different than most others because the stalls are run by charitable associations and different cultural groups who sell crafts and their own traditional foods. You’ll find everything from Swedish glögg to vegan food, and even South American peanut soup, gently lit by hundreds of kerosene lamps.
But the most atmospheric of all has to be the Christmas market in front of Charlottenburg Palace. We took the u-bahn over there on the 25th to soak up some seasonal cheer on this holiday far from friends and family.
It’s nice to be in a new place over the holidays, and in a city we can call “home”. As we walked through the market, I got thinking about all those Christmases I spent far away.
The first was in Arizona during my last year of uni. It was a bit of a difficult time personally, and so I rented a car and drove around the Navajo Reservation, hiked in the desert, and watched a dusting of snow fall over Monument Valley on Christmas Day.
When I lived in Japan, I spent one damp chilly Christmas exploring Kyoto’s Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
My wife and I spent our oddest Christmas on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, where a guy in a Santa suit rode up and down the main street of Nouméa on a moped yelling, “Ho ho ho!”
And one year we went to Vienna. We spent our days exploring historic libraries and palaces, and old cafes that still held the echo of long dead writers. Our Christmas dinner that year was a bosna and glühwein eaten standing up at the city’s best bratwurst kiosk, followed by a slice of Sacher torte at the Cafe Sacher (where else?).
During our Malta years, we went often went hiking. Christmas was one of the rare days when you could walk in the countryside without encountering hostile poachers or hunters.
One year we explored an isolated promontory called Ras Ir-Raheb. This flat point surrounded by sheer cliffs had been a sacred sight since ancient times, and it has what might just be the most incredible views in all of Malta. We went there in search of megaliths, and traces of a Phoenician temple.
And the other time — last year, in fact — we went searching for the ruins of a second century BC Roman villa at Ta’ Kaccatura in the south of the island, a place connected with the cultivation and pressing of olives. That day of walking was a final farewell, in a sense, because we left Malta for good a couple weeks later.
And now here we are in Berlin. January 8th will mark one year.
The first time we visited Berlin was December 2013. It was long before we ever thought of moving here, but I had a feeling I would be back. Sure enough, we returned every September for the next 3 years.
This Christmas we decided to commemorate that first trip by taking Christmas Eve dinner at the same restaurant we visited back then: a traditional German place in Kreuzberg. Four years later it was still pretty run down, the locals still looked depressed, and they still did an excellent Christmas goose with red cabbage and potato dumplings, and glasses of crisp house beer.
It was a small way of celebrating my decision to leave that strange little Mediterranean island, with all its ups and downs, and to start a new life in a new town.
I hope you had a wonderful holiday, wherever your travels took you this year
Have YOU spent a cool, interesting, or very strange Christmas on the road? Please share your story with me in the comments below.